Ross Cormack explores why adults don’t like talking about death and explains why it’s so important that we normalise the conversation for children
The thought of talking about death with children can be a terrifying prospect for any parent; so much so, that many of us avoid it all together – possibly because the idea of our own mortality creates fear and anxiety in us, and probably because we’re afraid of frightening our children.
In my work as a child bereavement specialist, I’ve often encountered parents and professionals who want to censor death from children altogether. I’ve known parents of non-bereaved children expressing anger at schools because a bereaved child in class has been talking about his loss in front of his classmates. A children’s television programme recently showed one of its characters accidently squashing a butterfly and this, according to media headlines, sparked a backlash amongst some parents, unhappy that their young children had been exposed to the subject of death on daytime television.
This kind of concern is completely understandable: the job of parents, biologically, is to protect their children at all costs. We can naturally worry that by talking about death we can trigger fears or make children think that it’s more likely to happen – and talking about things we think might harm them is, of course, not going to feel natural or comfortable or, in many cases, come easily.
But all children experience loss and endings from a young age, be it a lost or broken toy, the end of a nice day out or holiday, or a time of transition such as leaving nursery to start school – and it’s easy for adults to forget how huge these endings can feel. Losing a toy or another object is, of course, not the same as somebody dying, but the feelings it raises in children can feel, momentarily, just as strong. Loss is all part of life, and coming to terms with this is a normal and important part of our development. Adults are role models for children, and so it is up to us to take the lead and to open up the conversation. But how?
The key thing is not to try to educate your child all at once. Think of the subject of loss as one of many different developmental puzzles a child has to complete as she grows up. Small children have shapes they click into a picture; toddlers have a simple picture with a small number of pieces, and as they get older the number of pieces and complexity increase. Each step up to a new puzzle is supported and guided by an adult until your child is comfortable doing it by herself, though she may need more or less guidance at different times. I’m not advocating you sit down and suddenly say, “Right – we need to talk about things that die.” I’m talking about beginning to build a narrative of everyday life that includes an openness that things grow and then die.
The easiest and richest place to start this conversation is by using the natural life cycles in nature. The age of your child is going to dictate how much can be explored, and to what depth, but from a very early age children are taught about the seasons and how they change: from growth in spring and summer to the falling of the leaves in autumn and the darkness of winter. Each of these steps explores cycles of new life, death and regrowth.
When children play outdoors they may encounter many plants and small creatures and may, just like on the television programme, have accidents with bugs. It is these moments that you can use as opportunities to open up dialogue. What happens when a bug is squashed? What’s the difference between when a bug is alive and when it has died? Your child might not know, or you may only have a very quick conversation and then he will move on. Either way you’ve opened the door to a conversation.
Using clear language is really important with children, and difficult as it may feel – and it often does feel hard – saying the words ‘dead’ or ‘died’ is really important. These words are final, and clear, and it’s really important not to muddy the conversation by using metaphors that try and soften the subject. Children take things literally, and particularly between the ages of 5 and 7 they enter the world of magical thinking. This means that they may run away with a completely different idea in their minds that sometimes becomes scary or confusing.
With children aged under 6, depending on how advanced they are, I often advise parents to go and pick some flowers together with their child, and then use the life cycle of the flowers as an analogy. Parents can talk about how they are alive before they are picked and how, after they have been picked, they will begin to die. Returning to the flowers over the course of a week or so, the child will see for herself that they have begun to wilt and die.
Depending on the age of your child, there are many different ways you can expand on this. What is the difference between a plant that’s alive and a plant that’s dead? What happens to it physically? And where does it go? (You may have spiritual or religious beliefs that may inform this conversation, particularly if this ends up as a wider conversation about animals or people who die.)
There is some thinking that children don’t fully understand how final death is until around the age of 7 or 8, but the best way to support children in exploring loss and death is to be as open as you can, or at least as open as you are comfortable with. Older children will want and be able to handle more information.
The question all parents love – ‘Why?’ – will keep coming. Children may need to revisit a subject over and over again, and sometimes a child will ask a question that you won’t know how to answer. If this happens, avoid making something up. Instead say something like, “That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer right now, but I’ll get back to you.” If you can think of an answer after giving yourself breathing space, it’s a lovely way of bonding with your child for him to know you’ve thought about his question and haven’t forgotten. There may also be times when the question really doesn’t have an easy answer, so be honest about it. If your child is old enough he might want to talk to you about why there is no easy answer.
Undoubtedly this conversation may raise your anxiety or your child’s. This is normal, and the more you can calm your child’s distress and be with her feelings, the more you are building her resilience. When a conversation that is filled with anxiety is moved away from quickly or ignored by a parent, then the child quickly learns that the subject is off limits, and this can increase the child’s anxiety because it gives the implicit message that this is something that we, as adults, cannot manage.
The most important thing is to be as open, honest and reassuring as possible. The way in which we talk about something – our tone of voice, body language and words – provides reassurance. So, whilst acknowledging the sadness or upset, we need to be calm and reassuring in our manner.
You might find that after talking about loss in any context your child becomes clingy, seems to regress slightly in his behaviour, or is generally unsettled in his sleep or general routine. It’s normal for things to feel unsettled, and if you can recognise this, offer reassurance and ‘normalise’ the conversation, it becomes less scary for the child. With the right approach this conversation can really boost a child’s resilience, as it will help him to become more curious and to explore and open up about his fears and anxieties. Think of it as future-proofing. Just do your best! There is no such thing as a ‘super-parent’! Just do and say what you can.
Sadly, some people reading this will know a family where a child has experienced the death of a close person, or they may have directly been impacted themselves. Grief throws up many challenges for a parent or carer, including managing their own feelings and their children’s, and also navigating the new world of grief. There may be some aspects, as in the case of sudden death, that feel too big to begin to speak about. Much of the research points to children needing adults around them to talk about what’s happened, especially when there have been traumatic events. As soon as adults stop talking, what’s happened is compounded and feels even bigger for a child.
If a child or a family is struggling to cope after a death, getting the right support is really important. For parents, the time straight after a death can feel overwhelming: having to think about how and what to tell the children, as well as making decisions about the funeral. Without the right information, children will fill in the gaps themselves about what’s happened. This can have a negative impact on their self-esteem, and is harder to undo later on in their grief.
Unresolved aspects of grief can affect a child’s development into adulthood. This can be a scary thought for parents, but remembering some key points will help. Try to be open to explore and empathise with a child’s feelings. I meet many adults who go into overdrive of trying to explore and dig deeper into children’s feelings after someone has died, or say things to try and make them ‘happy’. This often drives negative feelings underground, which is unhelpful; if one person can tolerate a child’s feelings instead of doing something with them, this is a protective factor for the future. Try to build the jigsaw of what’s happened, even if at first it is just to say that the person has died, and if a child asks questions that you’re not ready to answer, say so. Importantly, go back to the child with an answer some time later. Fundamentally, offer plenty of reassurance that it wasn’t the child’s fault, and lots of empathy for her feelings.
I’ve been fortunate to meet some truly inspirational people of all ages through my work. It’s not easy to open up about and confront grief, and I’m always surprised by the courage individuals and families show, and incredibly honoured to witness not only their grief, but also, in time, their smiles, memories and laughter. The takeaway message here is that no matter what has happened, families can recover from the death of a loved one, and bereaved children can go on to lead happy and fulfilling lives. There’s always hope. It’s through open conversation and normalising feelings of grief that we can help this to happen.
Ross Cormack is a qualified Integrative Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and a Child Bereavement Practitioner with the UK’s first childhood bereavement charity, Winston’s Wish.
Winston’s Wish supports children, young people and their families after the death of a parent or sibling. If you are a family that is struggling to speak about a death, or you know someone who is struggling, then call Winston’s Wish’s Freephone National Helpline for advice and guidance on 08088 020 021. www.winstonswish.org
Illustrations by Veronica Petrie www.veronicapetrie.com